Vaccination site at Golden Gate Fields with blue tents. Berkeley teacher vaccines may be distributed through a city site.
A mass COVID-19 vaccination site is operating in the north parking lot of Golden Gate Fields. Feb. 4, 2021. Photo: Pete Rosos

Berkeley teachers would be prepared to return to school if they receive the COVID-19 vaccine, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers told the Berkeley Unified School District on Tuesday amid ongoing negotiations.

The counterproposal from the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) was made during labor talks about school reopenings in a hybrid model, and, if both parties agree, it could considerably speed up bringing kids back into classrooms.

But how fast is another question. Vaccine supply continues to be limited, and, although teachers are now eligible to be inoculated in Alameda County, residents aged 65 years and above are being prioritized for scarce slots.

The proposal says teachers would return once they receive both doses of the vaccine and complete the waiting period for full effectiveness, based on guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The schedule for the hybrid model will be negotiated separately from BUSD agreeing that teachers can return once they’re vaccinated. A hybrid model still needs to be developed for upper level schools, BFT President Matt Meyer said.

The proposal was based on a recent union member survey, which drew 563 responses, in which 85% of teachers said they would support an agreement to return under those conditions.

BUSD will consider the proposal over the coming days.

Trish McDermott, district spokesperson, said the district cannot speak to specifics of labor negotiations.

The district and the BFT are facing mounting pressure from community members to wrap up their negotiations and reopen schools, including protests from community members last weekend. This week, Alameda County schools  became eligible to reopen under updated state guidelines that require fewer than 25 cases per day per 100,000 residents. Local school districts in Contra Costa County have already opened their doors.

They previously had to wait until the red tier to open elementary schools (Berkeley and Alameda County are currently in the purple tier), but cases dropped well below that threshold in the last week and the county is currently recording 18 cases per day in that metric. Middle and high schools have to wait until the red tier to reopen, which means around seven cases a day per 100,000 residents.

BFT had originally proposed waiting until the orange tier to return to schools, which was stricter than state guidelines, but this new proposal means teachers in the union would agree to return even sooner. If all teachers were hypothetically vaccinated today, Meyer said, that would mean they would go back to campuses immediately.

City pushing for Berkeley teacher vaccines

Berkeley city leaders are also pushing for teachers to get vaccinated, but have repeatedly emphasized that supply will determine who gets the vaccine. City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley also wrote to the City Council Wednesday to say school reopening is a “top priority” for the city.

Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani attended last weekend’s rally to reopen schools, and Councilmember Lori Droste said she is working to facilitate vaccinations for teachers in the coming weeks.

The city has entered vaccine Phase 1B, which includes educators, agriculture workers and others, but residents who are 65 years and above are being prioritized within that tier because they are more vulnerable to the virus. Vaccine tiers have changed on a statewide level multiple times in the last few weeks, but local health departments can still make decisions about priority within those tiers.

“If and when there is a County or City vaccination event for school staff, it is likely that there may have to be a prioritized roll-out within the various newly eligible groups in Phase 1B, which includes educators, emergency service workers, and those over 65 years of age,” BUSD Sup. Brent Stephens told Berkeleyside.

The district has provided the city and county with a list of employees to be prioritized for the vaccine, Stephens said, and is also keeping track of other methods for teachers to get vaccinated. This includes venues through the county (which has a separate health department from Berkeley), individual healthcare providers and more.

There have been one-offs of teachers under the age of 65 being able to book appointments and getting vaccinated over the last couple weeks, but there has not been a coordinated effort to vaccinate educators yet due to limited supply.

Berkeley’s mass vaccination site opened up at Golden Gate Fields last week and even larger sites are set to open in the Bay Area next week at the Oakland Coliseum and Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara County, as well as the Alameda County Fairgrounds in the coming months.

Alameda County Health Officer and epidemiologist Dr. Nicholas Moss promoted the safety of school reopenings in an Instagram live session Wednesday afternoon with The Oaklandside, Berkeleyside’s sister site.

He urged patience with the vaccine rollout and said evidence has been building that school reopenings are safe if campuses take proper precautions, but it is still a logistical hurdle to meet those requirements.

BUSD has met these requirements for elementary school students according to its reopening dashboard, and is now waiting on labor negotiations. In the meantime, BFT and BUSD have also reached a smaller, Phase 1 agreement to allow teachers that are currently in classrooms to teach additional students. The Phase 2 agreement will allow opening up entire grade levels, instead of small cohorts only.

The full memorandum of understanding, which has been approved by BFT and BUSD, is one step toward more students in schools. City Councilmember Terry Taplin applauded the decision as a sign of progress toward school reopenings on social media Wednesday.

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...